Ukraine food truck wins hearts in regional Japan

A Ukrainian refugee whose family has been torn apart by the Russian invasion is making a new life in western Japan. Iryna Yavorska, 51, has been living in Shiga Prefecture for the past year where she serves up a taste of her motherland from a crowdfunded food truck.

Moving briskly in a small kitchen, Yavorska wraps the food with care and hands it to her customers.

Iryna Yavorska in her food truck

"Thank you, and see you soon" she says in Japanese.

Crepe-like mlyntsi

Yavorska serves up a crepe-like delicacy called mlyntsi that she fills with ingredients including cheese, salmon and chicken.

Mlyntsi is a crepe-like food that can be savory or sweet, depending on the filling.

Yavorska bakes each piece by hand. On busy days she can sell about 500 pieces.

As the weather cooled in November, she added borscht to her menu. The soup made with beetroot is a popular dish in Ukraine.

Evacuating from Kharkiv

Until one year ago, Yavorska lived with her husband, Roman, and mother Galyna, who is in her 80s, in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.

But when the military invasion by Russia began, a missile hit the pharmaceutical company where she worked, and a building next to their home was damaged by a rocket.

"The impact shattered the windows of my home, and we finally decided to evacuate," she says.

Yavorska lived in an apartment in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.

Her husband, Roman, 53, was unable to join her due to a ban on adult men leaving the country. The ban was designed to strengthen Ukraine's defenses.

Iryna Yavorska with her husband before she fled to Japan.

Accompanied by her mother, Yavorska left for Poland aboard a train crowded with evacuees. The pair traveled to western Lviv before crossing the border. But she found it impossible to settle in Poland, which has a relatively high cost of living, without any source of income.

Settling in Japan

Yavorska has a daughter Kateryna, 32, who was already living in the city of Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, with her Japanese husband Kikuchi Takashi. When the Japanese government announced it was accepting refugees from Ukraine, Kikuchi sprang to action.

Photo of Galyna, Iryna Yavorska, Kateryna, and Kikuchi Takashi in Japan was taken in late March 2022.

Kikuchi, 29, remembers what his father-in-law Roman told him over the phone: "I'm sorry; I will have to ask you to please take care of my wife for a while."

Kikuchi says he almost burst into tears as he imagined Roman saying goodbye to the love of his life, not knowing if they would ever see one another again.

Serenity at Lake Biwa

Yavorska and Galyna arrived safely in Japan at the end of March last year. It was the first time either of them had been in the country.

Yavorska was unable to sleep properly in Ukraine due to worry and stress. But in Japan, she has found some peace. She likes to take a walk along the shores of Lake Biwa to relieve stress.

Galyna and Iryna Yavorska like to walk along Lake Biwa, the biggest freshwater lake in Japan.

The pair gradually got used to life in Japan. Shiga Prefecture provides accommodation at an international exchange facility.

Food is love

The encouragement and support from Japan made Yavorska wonder if there was something she could offer in return. She does not speak Japanese, so that limited her options.

After discussions with her family, Yavorska decided to try selling her culinary specialty.

Before her daughter Kateryna married Kikuchi, the couple visited the family home in Ukraine. Language barriers meant Yavorska could not speak with Kikuchi, but there was something that brought them closer: the mlyntsi she prepared.

Kikuchi recalls the moment: "I couldn't communicate with my mother in words, but when I ate the mlyntsi she cooked, I could feel her love. I instantly knew she was a very kind person."

Kikuchi and others organized crowdfunding that raised more than 5 million yen (around US$38,000) within a month to help Yavorska buy a food truck. She launched her business in July 2022.

The food truck sells Ukrainian delicacies.

When she started, she called her signature dish "blinchiki," which is the Russian word for it. Because Yavorska's home is near the Russian border, she speaks both languages. Her family always used the Russian word.

But Ukrainians living in Japan told her it would be better to use the Ukrainian term. So she changed it to "mlyntsi."

Hiring Ukrainian staff

The food truck business took off and received invitations to attend events all over western Japan. Yavorska and her colleagues are now helping other Ukrainians.

In August she launched a second food truck, this time in Tokyo, and hired seven Ukrainian evacuees. Yavorska said she hoped the jobs would make new staff feel a little more positive about life, just as it did for her.

Yavorksa hires other Ukrainian refugees to work on the food truck.

A setback

In October last year, a food truck Kikuchi was driving from Tokyo to Shiga Prefecture overturned on the highway. Fortunately, he was not injured, but the accident was a disruption.

The food truck was sent for repairs after the accident.

With fewer outdoor events over the colder months, sales decreased, and winter was a tough time for Yavorska. And she grew increasingly anxious about what was happening back home.

The Russians were targeting power plants in eastern Ukraine, and communication with her husband, Roman, became difficult. "I've been worried all the time. My heart aches when I learn about the terrible events in Ukraine. I don't know when the war will end, but I want it to end," she says.

Roman looks increasingly stressed during video calls.

Hopes for the future

Yavorska and her family have a long-term plan to bring Roman to Japan. Currently, adult men are barred from traveling abroad, but if they are allowed after the war ends, they hope to open a Ukrainian restaurant in Hikone City.

A family video call on February 3.

Yavorska was finally able to make a video call with Roman for the first time in more than a month on February 3. The family discussed the restaurant plans.

Roman, who was once a cook on a cargo ship, wants to serve a mix of Ukrainian and Japanese cuisine.

Yavorska yearns for the day when her family is reunited — in Japan. "Since I came to Hikone, many people have supported me, and my customers offer such kind words," she says. "We hope to provide all kinds of Ukrainian cuisine in Hikone City at the restaurant we will open one day. I want to start working together as a family in a state of peace."

Yavorska says the food truck business is a big part of her life.
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